As technology permeates all aspects of work and life, the skills needed to be successful are evolving. Simply having in-depth technical knowledge isn’t sufficient and just being equipped with soft, transferable life skills stops one from holistically applying them. What’s more important is establishing a balance that will incorporate key aspects from both ends of the spectrum, under the wider umbrella of digital skills.
One desirable quality that employers are looking for in future candidates is the ability to take initiative. In other words, this means having agency. The World Economic Forum describes taking initiative as a 21st Century Skill and I believe it is one with the ability to blend the hard and soft skills that students will need in order to be successful.
Eric Sheninger defines student agency as:
Student agency is about empowering kids to own their learning (and school) through greater autonomy. It is driven by choice, voice, and advocacy.
Imagine the kind of professionals we would see if students were encouraged to own their learning, make decisions, take responsibility for their choices, or speak up when they want to learn more. Certainly, most of them will be agile, adaptable, curious, extremely resourceful, and entrepreneurial.
So the question is now, how do you develop agency in students? While there isn’t a single correct method, I can share some examples that have come across through my work with schools globally.
- Give Teachers Agency
Teachers are the torchbearers of transformation in a classroom and the school. Give them the opportunity, time, and resources to break away from the shackles of a highly structured curriculum and encourage them to experiment. When teachers are empowered, the students will reap the benefits.
- Involve Students in the Decision Making Process
A school I worked with introduced “drop-in labs,” in which students could use the computer labs for their own work, without teacher supervision for two hours after school. To ensure the students are using their time and the school’s resources appropriately and effectively, the students co-created the usage guidelines for themselves and shared it with the school. This made the learning process authentic and developed ownership from the beginning. Ultimately students are the benefactors of this process but to make it work, they should buy into the outcome.
- When Using Technology, Focus on Competencies and Skills Not Devices
When a new device is introduced into the classroom, let the students “play” with it for sometime before showing them how to use it. Devices come and go, but skills are evergreen. Instead of students becoming experts with a specific device, focus on their development of digital skills such as digital citizenship, content creation, data analysis, finding and authenticating information, storing and organizing information, and time management.
- Ask Open-Ended Questions
Where possible introduce your students to activities or projects with open-ended questions. This ensures multiple endpoints, opportunities for new discoveries, rapid learning, knowledge sharing, and experimentation. Another approach to this is giving students real-world problems and asking them to solve them with the tools and skills they have at their disposal.
- Make Your Students Fall in Love With Learning
Learning is a nonlinear process in which no two people learn the same way or even within the same time frame. Encourage your students to learn new skills and share their findings with their classmates. Show appreciation for any new knowledge or skills a student brings to the classroom. Finally and most importantly, reward effort and experimentation and do not penalize failure.
- Encourage Playing and Tinkering
Whether it’s a digital device, watercolors in an art lesson, or lines of code – let your students play without supervision. Building time for unstructured play in every subject helps students develop a deeper understanding of the subject matter, materials, and resources and in some cases also helps them discover new things about themselves or the subject.
- Be a Coach or Facilitator of Learning
As a teacher, if you change the nature of your classroom to be more agency driven, your role will also transform. You don’t need to be the ‘sage on the stage’ but you will become more like a coach encouraging your students to complete their project or nudge them in the right direction with actionable insights.
- Rethink Assessments
Your transformed teaching experience cannot be assessed with a traditional written exam or a quiz. This means that to measure student learning, you will need variety and to distribute the assessments over the course of the entire activity instead of giving it only at the end.
How do you try to develop student agency in your classroom? Have you tried any of the points suggested above? I’d love to learn and hear from you. You may reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mo Qureshi is an aeronautical engineer from the University of Glasgow who found his calling in education and lifelong learning. At BSD, he helps our partner schools and teachers to seamlessly integrate technology programs of learning in all subjects and lessons through professional development training, coaching, and classroom visits. He also manages our Customer Support, QA, and Performance team in the Philippines. A keen traveler, Mo has lived and worked in the United Kingdom, India, and Hong Kong.